People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 15

April 15, 2007

Lok Sabha Speaker Reminds:

Constitution Is For The People


The following are excerpts from the speech delivered by Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee at a seminar on ‘The Theory of the Basic Structure of the Constitution’, in New Delhi on April 04, 2007 organised by the Supreme Court Bar Association.


THE words controversy, disharmony and taking on the judiciary, all these expressions are nowadays being used very liberally. After all, we have a Constitution of India. And that Constitution has certain provisions. There may be differences in the interpretation of the Constitution, but what I have been very humbly saying is that let the Constitution prevail.


When I have referred to certain orders [reg. how to conduct proceedings in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly], which were passed by the Supreme Court, I felt that as the person who has been given the responsibility to maintain the legislative functions, I will be failing in my duty if I do not point out that there has been an encroachment in the legislative arena, which Constitution specifically and unambiguously provides. Nobody till today has shown me that my submissions have been constitutionally wrong. Therefore, that is only the supposed controversy. 


Now, I come to the other supposed controversy. I said the matter of discipline [of MPs] is the matter concerning legislature only. There is no question of such matters [expulsion of MPs] being decided by any other authority of this country. Of course, my view has not been totally accepted, but by and large it has been accepted by the Supreme Court. 


I have certain views about the basic structure. The question remains as to what are the basic features. I do not know whether there is any list of basic features in the Constitution. Will it be expanded? Will it be restricted? What is meant by basic? Is it not the duty of the parliament of India to formulate policies, to provide education to people, to remove disparities? After all the parliament represents the people and the Constitution is people-centric. Constitution is for the people – neither for the legislature per se nor for the judiciary nor for the executive. How will the people be governed? Our founding fathers thought that this is the best method. They did not do it overnight or not on a piece of paper which the Constituent Assembly members signed. It was after three and a half years of deliberations. Some of the people who were there – you all know – were the outstanding people of our country. They were the outstanding leaders of our country. That was the job which was done by the members of the Constituent Assembly to give some shape to the dreams and aspirations of the people. The fight for the Independence was not only to remove the white people but also to see that our people of great civilisation, of great heritage, of great merit, who have been subjected to humiliation of foreign domination, would be able to govern themselves. They had to decide the priorities; and they tried to find out how best they would be able to serve the people. That is the objective of the Constitution. The very fact is that the people are the real entity for which this Constitution was framed. It has been proved by the Preamble itself – “We the People of India …” Therefore, everything has to be tested on the basis of what serves the people of this country. Now, the question is who will decide what is good for the people. That is the basic question to my mind.


Now, how does parliamentary democracy function? It has to be by the choice of the people. Our Constitution has provided for the accountability by the council of ministers to the House of People, that is, to the people. And not to anybody else. The accountability of the government for every action taken has to be to the legislature, which represents the people of the country. The legislature is constituted by the people, which you all know. In India, this is a glory I find. In many countries – many so-called advanced countries – only about 30 to 35 per cent of the people take part in voting. 38 per cent of the people elected president Bush; about 35 to 45 per cent people take part in voting in the United Kingdom. Here, in our country, 60 to 80 per cent of the people are voting. They are voting because they feel that our representatives will jointly decide how to remove the problems of this country, how to look after the interest of this country, how to give shape to the dreams and aspirations of the people of this country. Therefore, peoples’ only instrument is the parliament or the legislative bodies through which it can try to change their condition or to remove the aberrations in the system or to remove the imperfections in the system and take this country forward in a manner which the people, by majority, decides.


Now, we have manifestos. Every party has got its manifesto. People make their choices. You may say ‘Oh, they are very illiterate; they cannot decide’. Who will decide for them? Nobody has the authority to decide for them. They apply their judgement. They are the people who are really at the receiving ends, if I may say so. And those people exercise their choice and adopt a particular manifesto or a coalition’s manifesto. You all are well aware that our people are changing the government through ballot. So many governments have been changed recently. Why? Why people are doing it is because they exercise their judgement by their mind and take a conscious decision. We have had 14 general elections in this country at the centre. On six occasions the government was changed because of the people. Now, these people can decide what will be good for their interest. Therefore, I think that our Constitution does not contemplate any tension, any disharmony. 


Well, the Supreme Court itself has said that you can criticise a judgement. Nobody is infallible. There should not be assumption of infallibility by anybody. The Supreme Court has reversed its decisions. It has reviewed its decisions. Even a full-bench decision of the High Court has been changed. Nobody attributes motives because it is how the system operates. If a judgement of the High Court is overruled does anybody imputes motive to the judges? 


I am not saying that the legislature is infallible. Similarly, nobody should think that the judiciary is infallible, or any other organ is infallible. Therefore, why should there be a controversy? The controversy is arising because the people of this country think that certain changes brought through their chosen representatives are negated. Can any other authority say: ‘No, people’s decisions are wrong. They have no right to decide themselves. I will decide or we will decide as to what is good for them or what is bad for them?’. That is the crux of the matter. 


Ultimately, the decision has to be taken by those, who are directly concerned. Now, everybody says that the identity of the Constitution should not be lost. What is the identity of the Constitution? There should be a Rule of Law; there is an independent judiciary in this country; there should be a parliament, which should function according to the provisions of the Constitution. Nobody questions the powers of the court to declare a law ultra vires.


Some of the discussions that are taking place about the Constitution are: the Constitution says that the legislature has absolute powers of amendment. Another authority, which is the creature of the Constitution says that ‘no, you have not.’ Where is the question? 


I do not find the words ‘judicial activism’ anywhere in the Constitution. Nobody would question the right of the Supreme Court to nullify laws because of violation of the Constitution. Nobody would question the striking down of the Executive Orders, if they are not based on legality. The interpretation put by the Supreme Court on the Statutes of this country would have an overbearing effect and nobody can question it. But questions are arising unfortunately.


The country is facing tremendous problems. Even today 30 per cent of our people are below the poverty line. The highest infant mortality rate in the world is in our country. Maternal mortality is extremely high in our country. Female foeticide is taking place in this country. Lack of education is plaguing the development of this country. There is no proper health care. How can the judiciary solve this problem, if I may ask with all humility at my command? Therefore, there is an authority by which people are elected. They have to do that and they have to explain. It is their responsibility. They are accountable to the people. Accountability is to be there not only to their conscience but also accountability is to be there to the people of the country who are the real masters of the legislature, if I may say so without being misunderstood, and also of all the authorities in this country. If we feel that I am the best authority to decide about the people’s interests, well, there lies the question mark. 


Now, I have been asked by Justice Kapadia two questions – The first one on amendment and re-writing. Well, if re-writing is necessary, it would be done. Now, parliament consciously abolished the right to property as a fundamental right in the Constitution. People say it is good. But the judges say that it is bad. Because the judicial authority prevails, therefore the question comes as to who is to decide whether the private property should be a Fundamental Right or not. Therefore, if it is so needed, it has to be re-written. 


Except that aberration, except the greatest attack on the Constitution, you know what it was. There was a direct attack on the Constitution for the sake of one individual, and in the parliament I had the opportunity to give my views. It is right that you cannot forget the worst chapter of our history, the darkest chapter of our history. Therefore, the people themselves taught the lesson; unceremoniously she was removed. A new government came and restored those provisions by the 44th Amendment, if I am not wrong about the number. Therefore, that aberration was removed by the people themselves.


Now, Justice Kapadia has also asked me as to how many legislations have been turned down. This shows that the legislators generally behave well. I am sure that he is not unhappy that more laws are not scuttled. Legislators are also trying to discharge their functions sincerely. You may not like many laws, many decisions. I do not like the way I am functioning but there is no substitute. Budget has to be placed before the House and it has to be passed. Laws can only made by parliament of India. Law declared by the Supreme Court is not the law made by the Supreme Court. There is no other authority under the Indian Constitution to make laws. For the time being, Ordinance is issued by the executive through the presidential assent, and ultimately it has to be approved by the parliament, and only parliament can do it. What is good for India and what is not good for the Indian people, somebody has to decide. You cannot decide and enforce it on the basis of the contempt of court power. There has to be acceptability by the people. The whole basis of enforcement of your orders is contempt of court, which should instead be based on respect for the judiciary. Of course, this Constitution says that. But it will be much better and most desirable if there is an acceptance by the people.


I really did not come here to join an issue. I am only a little unhappy that very important issues in this country are being treated as matters of confrontation. There need not be any confrontation. I am sincerely feeling that our problem today is because of the confrontationist politics we have in this country. We seem to have no national issue. Issues of parties, issues of caste, issues of religion, and issues of geographical entities are dividing the country, which is weakening the country’s resolve to solve many of the problems that we have.